Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Fear of the Void

February 10, 2008

The void must be a very scary thing to many, if not most, people.  As far as I can see, people believe in god because they’re afraid of the gaps in human knowledge.  They feel a need to fill in these gaps and that’s where god comes in handy.  Everything is defined and can be traced back to a source, even if it, itself, is undefinable.

I had a phone conversation with a family member a while back that turned into a discussion about religion, god, and society.  We disagreed, so maybe debate would be a better word.  She seemed to rely on the fact that I didn’t have all the answers as proof that her belief was justified and, therefore, that our society should be founded in religious principles.

At one point, I had her cornered.  She had no response and, suddenly, there was real panic and fear in her voice as she started accusing me of some violation of the rules or principles of debate, then found an excuse to end the conversation and hang up.  I realized that she didn’t just want to believe she was right.  For some reason, she needed to.

I don’t understand this fear.  I accept that there’s a lot we don’t know.  I even accept that what we know is dwarfed by what we don’t know.  I’m OK with saying, “I don’t know”.  It’s a perfectly valid, and honest, answer.  We gradually fill in the knowledge gap, or void, with facts as we expand our knowledge.

But that’s not fast enough or good enough for some people.  They want a complete package now.  And, if any facts threaten their complete, but false, universe, they reject them – often vociferously.  They seem to think the world will fall apart without one.  Some, who have been misled or lied to and then realize it, do have or let their worlds fall apart, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Even some people who reject god and religion continue their pursuit of perfection.  They need a perfect system or philosophy to replace the old one they discovered wasn’t perfect, or even real.  They need an irrefutable core that everything else can be traced back to.

But we are imperfect people in an imperfect world.  We do the best we can for ourselves and to balance our own needs with those of society.  We try to interact with others in a way that is as mutually agreeable as possible.

Maybe we will find a perfect philosophy or system one day.  Maybe not.  Until then, we have to accept our imperfection and make do with what we do know.  We should not accept a false system of belief that offers misleading perfection, or an illusory perfect world view.

A society based on lies will eventually come crashing down.  Better to bring about a soft landing than to delay the inevitable crash by trying to hold up the sky.

Absolutely Relative

January 21, 2008

We assume parents are always right.  Society is geared towards the idea of parental infallibility.  “Don’t do anything your mother wouldn’t do/would be ashamed of”, we’re told.  “Honour thy mother and thy father”, one of the Christian commandments reads.  It reinforces the ideas of authority and continuity.  The family is a module, a building block of society.

But what if your parents are wrong?  What if they are racist, for instance?  You love someone of another race, but your racist parents tell you it’s wrong or that they’re ashamed of you.  You’re mother would never get involved with someone of another race.  Do you follow the rule of honouring your parents and their example, or your conscience and heart?

Let’s subject the assumption to extreme scrutiny.  Hitler had children.  What if they had seen what a monster he was, and killed him?  Would they have been heroes for doing the world a favour, or patricidal maniacs?  If they’d had the opportunity to grow up, should they have honoured their father and followed in his footsteps?  We’re supposed to follow our parents’ examples, but not every parent sets a good example.

Moral absolutes simply don’t work.  As soon as you make a universal statement, it has to stand up in every instance – including the most extreme ones.  But there are always exceptions.  There are always special situations, extenuating circumstances to take into account.  Every case is unique.  The ethical landscape changes relative to these unique circumstances.

Surprisingly, people who claim to be moral absolutists are often some of the most strident supporters of moral relativism, when it suits them, without realizing it.  The god fearing bible thumpers who swear by the ten commandments are often the same people who defend their right to own a gun and use it to kill someone in self-defense.  The relevant commandment does not contain a clause regarding extenuating circumstances.  It is just assumed by those who think it should apply, relative to the situation.

Conservative thinkers don’t like to… think about such things.  That might encourage change, after all.

Disillusionment

January 19, 2008

People talk of disillusionment as if it’s a bad thing, but it should be good.  Disillusion, and it’s suffix-enhanced derivatives, is one of my favourite words.  It is misleading in its use, but revealing in its construction.

The Gage Canadian Dictionary defines disillusion as “free from illusion”, “freeing or being freed from illusion”.  Examining its constituent parts, this seems obvious – dis = not, remove;  illusion = false vision;  and ment = condition or state of.  So disillusion means not under – or free from – false vision, and disillusionment is the condition or state of not – or no longer – being under false vision.  In other words, disillusionment is clarity.  That’s a good thing, no?

Clarity is good, but we think of disillusionment as bad because when people see the truth after being lied to all their lives, they feel resentment or, perhaps, depression.  But, it’s not the newly found clarity that is the problem, it is the lies they’ve been taught by the people they should have been able to trust the most.  When the people you counted on to raise and teach you turn out to have been wrong, and to have given you a false vision of the world, it is natural that there will be negative sentiment.

When this happens people lose confidence in the old system.  But there isn’t a system in place to replace the old one so they may become cynical and adopt the attitude that it doesn’t matter, that there are no rules or limits on behaviour.  This, at least in part, is what happened in the 1960s and 1970s when, for the first time, large numbers of people questioned the institutions of their childhood and found them lacking.  But, they didn’t really have anything to replace them with.  There are those who would point to this and say, “See?  This is what happens without god.”  There are alternatives, though.

We need to teach children a new system of ethics based on rationality, common sense, and truth – not fear of a god or eternal damnation.  It has to be done from an early age, in school.  They should be taught how to figure out the right thing to do, rather than to follow like sheep.  In other words, they have to develop critical thinking skills so they can distinguish right from wrong.  Then, maybe, everyone can be on the same page in the future.

Of course, it will have to be done carefully.  I’m thinking of a conversation I had years ago with a French friend, in which I told her I had the impression that French kids throw away their Sartre when they read they are free and go out to wreak havoc, before getting to the part about responsibility.  She didn’t disagree.

This post appears in the Carnival of the Godless #87.